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Alistair Johnston: “It’s unbelievable to say that I’m a part of this”

From League1 Ontario to the FIFA World Cup, the Vancouver-born defender is relishing the opportunity to star on the biggest stage in world football.

Jamaica v Canada: 2022 World Cup Qualifying Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Two years ago, Alistair Johnston had just concluded his first season with Nashville SC in MLS after going 11th overall in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. Today, Johnston is gearing up to represent his country on the biggest stage in world football, the FIFA World Cup.

Johnston’s exciting rise has continued to turn heads not just in Canada, but across North America too. What’s next? Well, the defender’s name is now set to be announced in front of thousands of fans in attendance in Qatar, as well as to millions of people watching on screens across the globe.

With the 24-year-old having already played a pivotal role in Canada’s World Cup Qualifying campaign and CF Montreal’s run to the MLS Eastern Conference semi-finals in 2022, the tournament in Qatar will culminate a year which Johnston described as a “whirlwind.”

“It’s been a rollercoaster of a year, but luckily for me, the rollercoaster keeps going up and up and up,” said Johnston ahead of joining up with his compatriots in Bahrain.

It’s safe to say that Johnston’s “rollercoaster” ride has yet to hit its climax, and at 24 years of age, his future in the professional game continues to look brighter and brighter by the season. His career hit a notable height following a stellar 2021, with the defender earning himself a move to CF Montreal prior to the 2022 MLS season.

In addition to the fact that he was moving back to Canada, Johnston was also returning to the city where his love for football began to blossom. At the age of four, Johnston played for Lakeshore SC, a club based in the suburb of Kirkland, Quebec. Twenty years later, he is a fan favourite in the city of Montreal following a debut season that saw him score four goals and provide five assists in 33 MLS games.

It may have all started in Quebec, but a large portion of Johnston’s youth career was spent in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) after his family moved to Aurora, Ontario when the defender was seven.

As someone who worked their way up the domestic youth ranks before heading to the NCAA, Johnston knows just how much the Canadian footballing landscape has changed over the years.

“It’s been crazy, I’ve actually been able to witness it,” said Canadian international.

“The passion’s always been there, especially when I first moved to Vaughan. It’s mental in that Woodbridge-Vaughan area. The 2006 World Cup was the first World Cup I remember, and when Italy won, it was like the world was ending with the cars honking and all the flags out, it was insane.”

Given the upward trajectory of both the men’s and women’s national teams, Johnston believes that it was only a matter of time before football would have mass appeal in Canada.

“We’ve always known that passion was there, but it was just a matter of tapping into it,” the defender expressed.

“With how much progress the women’s national team has made over the past decade, and now with it finally being our [CANMNT] turn to start carrying some of the weight, we can see the passion coming out, and it’s such an exciting time for the sport in this country.”

That “passion” was ever present during the men’s national team’s historic World Cup Qualifying run. Multiple moments from Les Rouges’ road to Qatar will undoubtedly be cherished by numerous Canadians for many years to come.

“Those sold out games in Edmonton, Hamilton, and Toronto in the end, it was really special,” said Johnston on the Octagonal.

“Compared to where we were only a couple of years ago to now, it’s unbelievable to say that I’m a part of this, and we just want to keep growing the game in the country.”

Johnston featured in each of Canada’s 14 matches during the final round of World Cup Qualifying, where he and his fellow defenders oversaw seven clean sheets. When asked if there was one moment that truly made him believe that a World Cup berth was on the horizon, his answer did not come as a shock.

“Against Panama at home, locked at 1-1 in a really tough must-win game, Alphonso Davies made the craziest play I’ve ever seen live. He literally just chased a dude down and won a ball that he had no business getting to,” said Johnston on that moment of individual brilliance from Davies.

“Me as a defender, I was still in my own 18 with my jaw just on the floor knowing that he was really about to go and score that. As the crowd rose up when he was on the ball, you could sense something magical was about to happen. It was pure pandemonium. At that moment, I knew qualifying was possible, and we followed through with that.”

There is so much to look back on from the men’s national team’s momentous Octagonal campaign, but for Johnston, there is no topping the day that Canada officially punched their ticket to Qatar.

“It was the most special moment of my career.

“Pulling into the stadium and seeing all the fans cheering and with flares, our bus could barely move. That’s the passion that we want because that’s the passion you see in so many die-hard European countries. We truly have that die-hard passion for football here in Canada, so we just need to continue tapping into it with results and by competing against the best teams in the world.

“There was nothing that could’ve rained on our parade that day, not even the snowy weather. We went out there and took care of business, and it was a great celebration of what level the sport has gotten to in this country.”

A thrilling new adventure looms for Johnston, who expressed how ecstatic he is to not just experience playing at a World Cup, but also in the Middle East.

“I’m really looking forward to getting out there and seeing what these stadiums in Qatar are going to look like. It’s definitely going to be different from playoffs in Montreal,” said Johnston on going from playing in the MLS Cup Playoffs to the FIFA World Cup.

“You’re playing on the world’s biggest stage, so you could’ve put us out there on tarmac or on sand and we would’ve been just as excited for it. It’s going to be so special.”

For both club and country, Johnston has captivated Canadians with his tenacious, dogged style of play. His attitude on and off the pitch has been nothing short of exemplary for budding footballers across the nation. Moreover, it’s time for the world to see what the Vancouver-born star can do on a stage like no other, the FIFA World Cup.